Anxious moderns seek solace in primitive hooey

Posted: Aug 21, 2003 12:00 AM

A persistent argument keeps finding its way into my mailbox almost regardless of subject. Whether the topic of the day is fatherhood, family, marriage, divorce, childbirth, nutrition, addiction, blackouts or the California recall, some little snip out there launches the "oh-yeah-well-in-primitive-cultures-yadda-yadda-yadda."

As in, nothing we believe, trust or defend as long-standing cultural standards based on Judeo-Christian tradition is necessarily valid.

Blame Rousseau's noble savage, Einstein's relativity or multiculturalism's maxim of non-judgment. Whatever the mix of influences, we seem to have devolved to a state of such self-contempt that any ol' aborigine is better than what white men have wrought in the guise of Western civilization.

In the romanticized world of the noble savage, primitive wisdom - tied as it is to, oh, moon cycles, deciduous tree droppings, squirrel couplings - is always deemed superior to white man's brain emissions.

The underpinning of these recycled arguments rests on the assumption that the closer humans live to nature - absent the corruptions inherent in civilization (see McDonald's) - the purer and better they are. Hunter-gatherers good; Publix bad. Diapered aboriginal spear-throwers good; Orvis-clad white men in duck blinds bad.

No matter what theory or cultural icon you want to knock down, there's a convenient excuse - I mean, antique antidote - waiting to be Googled.

We seem most attached to primitive remedies in discussions of gender and relationships. Hence the current goddess movement and the search for the lost sacred feminine. Modern woman finds her self-esteem in the arrangement of rocks in rural England.

Hetero men, meanwhile, race to the woods, run around campfires and beat drums trying to rediscover their inner butchness, while gay men lobby to marry each other and adopt babies. And by exactly what authority does anyone deem heterosexuality to have greater value to civilization than homosexuality? In Siberian shamanism, bisexuality was honored and androgyny was the goal. And you thought it was a '60s thing.

History, in other words, proffers unguents to salve the stickiest wickets. But whatever our current mood, evolution should count for something, and several centuries of human head-banging have produced a nuclear-family template that ideally works pretty well. Man and woman unite, sanctioned by society and supported by culture, to procreate - if they're absolutely determined to be miserable. (That's a joke.)

The idea of male/female union was not my idea, but it works. Sperm 'n' egg are the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers of the human race. In our culture, boys study dads to learn to be men and how to treat women; girls study moms to learn to be women and how to treat men. Fathers protect their daughters; mothers protect their sons.

In the absence of either, we have problems. Not insurmountable, not life ruining, necessarily, but problems. Freud didn't concoct his theories of psychoanalysis from observing the secret lives of bees. Real people suffer real problems from the familial imbalances we strive as a society to correct.

Yet, when I suggest the patently obvious, that children need both a mother and a father and do best in an intact heterosexual household, I get hit with a barrage of primitive-culture benedictions. Marriage wasn't always thus and so. And who says children need fathers? And who says two mothers aren't just as good as a mother and father. Wait, here comes one now:

"Marriage is not as important to civilization as you make it out to be," says an e-mailer. "We are not a more advanced society than hunter-gather's (sic) because of our ritual of marriage."

Well, OK, I'll concede that agriculture was huge, not to mention Palm Pilots. But the family unit created by marriage between men and women isn't merely a quaint custom; it is the keystone to civilization as we know it. That we have done a lousy job in recent decades of honoring the institution is hardly reason to impugn its importance.

Whatever deviations, permutations or alterations we make to marriage in our accommodations to changing trends will not alter the fact - proven by experience, supported by social science and otherwise observed by any nursemaid - that children want, need and benefit most from a mother and a father.

Our resort to praising ancient or primitive ways as somehow exemplary is an adolescent's search for self-justification, grasping at historic precedent in order to grant equivalence to instinct and morality, appetite and reason. It won't wash, and speaking of which, those Siberian shamans could use a bath.